The ageless outliers of Irish women’s marathon running
‘To me the marathon is so mental and so physical that you only really get to know it as you get older’
Breege Connolly winning a Northern Ireland senior women’s race. Photograph: Declan Roughan/Inpho
Nothing revives the health of any sport like an injection of talented youth and enthusiasm. If you’re good enough you’re old enough, as they also say in the music business, and youth, it seems, is central to the team of 41 Irish athletes heading to Berlin for the European Championships next week.
The average age is somewhere around 25, positively skewed by five teenagers, all of whom happen to be women: Ciara Neville is just 18 and Gina Apke-Moses and Molly Scott still both 19, all three already part of the 4x100m relay team who last month won silver medals at the IAAF World Under-20 Championships in Tampere, Finland, and two more – Ciara Deely (18) and Davacia Patterson (17) – are part of the women’s 4x400m relay team for Berlin.
Phil Healy is still only 23, and who last month became the first Irish women in 40 years to break the national senior 100m and 200m records in the same summer. So too is Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, just finished a four-year US scholarship at Villanova University, and who brings plenty of youth and experience to the 800m.
Our five men marathon runners skew things in the older direction. Mick Clohisey, Kevin Seaward and Paul Pollock are 32, Sean Hehir is 33, and Sergiu Ciobanu is 34; nothing unusual about that age in that event and in fact about average at the elite end of 26.2- mile championship running.
With an average age of 38, the four Irish women marathon runners are older again. Three of them also happen to be mothers, and, with seven children between, them may even appear as some sort of outliers, or at least out there on their own.
Lizzie Lee turned 38 in May, and two years on from running the Rio Olympic marathon and 13 months after giving birth to her second daughter, the Cork woman is running in her first full European Championship marathon.
So are the other three. At age 32,Laura Graham from Down is the youngest of the four by some distance, and also a mother to four children. Leitrim-born Breege Connolly turned 40 earlier this year, and, now based in Belfast, also developed relatively late in her career to qualify for Rio 2016. Gladys Ganiel is a mother of one and aged 41. She is also Belfast-based.
Cork’s Claire McCarthy, the 42 year-old mother of four children, was also originally selected to run in Berlin having achieved the necessary qualifying time last year. However, a training-related stress fracture in her leg forcing her to withdraw.
Most athletes will tell you that age is but a number, young or old, and Lee has always been a willing spokesperson on that matter.
“The marathon is not a young woman’s game,” Lee told The Irish Times. “Yes, you have some 22-, 23-year-olds, but to me the marathon is so mental and so physical that you only really get to know it as you get older. I’ve had two babies, and can tell you that at the end of a marathon you’re head goes to places that it will never go to at any other point.
“And in endurance running, in the second half of your 30s, there’s no reason why you can’t still be improving. And when was the last time we had five women capable of breaking 2:40 regardless of their age?
“I know the Irish record is 2:22, which Catherina McKiernan has run, and is an outstanding time, but let’s go for some depth, because what happens with depth is a snowball effect – more women aspire to it, see the possibilities.”
Lee doesn’t just see those fresh possibilities but goes about attaining them. She ran her fastest half-marathon time of 73:19 in Valencia back in March, just eight months after giving birth. She then won the Women’s Mini-Marathon in Dublin on the June Bank Holiday weekend, another running ambition ticked, the fastest woman of any age on the day.
And earlier this month, in the Dublin Marathon Race Series 10km, she finished third – the third fastest man or woman of any age on the day.
“Look at the all the major marathons, and the average of the top women is 33, 34,” said Lee, pointing to the fact Des Linden won the Boston Marathon last April at age 34 in her sixth attempt, and there will be further evidence of that in the women’s marathon in Berlin.
Italy’s Catherine Bertone, born on May 6th, 1972, is now aged 46, and shows no signs of slowing down. She placed 25th at the Rio 2016 Olympics and in Berlin last September, Bertone ran a world over-45 record of 2:28:34, and that sort of time puts her among the medal contenders in Berlin
There are others running in Berlin in their 40s: Italy’s Fatna Maraoui and Laura Hrebec from Switzerland, both 41, and Sonia Tsekini-Boudouri from Greece, at age 42.
All four of the Irish women are also working athletes. Lee is a full-time employee of Apple. Connolly commutes from Belfast to Newry each day, where she works as a senior software tester for eShopworld. Ganiel is a research fellow at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen’s University in Belfast (she has also authored or co-authored four books). Graham works part-time at the Kilkeel Leisure Centre close to her home, often training on a treadmill while keeping watch on her four children.
Lee has also previously pointed to some of the benefits, perceived or otherwise, of running competitive marathons after childbirth. There is still some debate as to how pregnancy may help women distance runners in the long run; red blood cell count does increase, improving endurance and oxygen capacity, although Lee is sure it has given her some advantage.
Lee’s first daughter Lucy (now almost four) was born in late 2014, and she came back in late 2015 to run her fastest marathon (2:35:51 in Berlin), qualifying for Rio (where she finished 57th). Her second daughter Alison was born 13 months ago, and the Cork woman sees no reason why she can’t run faster again.
Her longevity may also be explained by the fact she came to running late, aged 26, and still has the desire to train despite work and family obligations. “For me that’s what works, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Of course my two girls are the most important thing in my world, and if everything is right with them my running will go well. But it’s an efficiency thing with the training, military-style organisation.
“After giving birth to Alison, I was swimming after three weeks, got back running after six weeks, and just got the joy back. You can’t plan anything being the pregnancy. But she’s been the dream. I was getting a full night’s sleep from 12 weeks on. The motivation came back with that too. It just went from there.”
And Lee also has the potential to be among Ireland’s top finishers in Berlin, the marathon set for Sunday week, August 12th, in the heart of the city.
Talented youth and enthusiasm, it seems, is still no replacement for the dedication and hard work that comes with the marathon. And if anyone was counting up what it was costing any of these four women to represent their country in Berlin they may quickly discover it to be priceless.